ENGLISCH/950: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (214) - Word coinages per hyphen (SB)

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook,

I have a question about the term "easy-going-lucky" which I heard during my stay in the South of England. A friend of mine used it to describe a girl who seemed to be very light-hearted and cheerful. He said: she is a sort of "easy-going-lucky" kind of person. I thought then, that he was just using a lot of words to describe what he meant, because he couldn't remember the right adjective. But then I found that not only he seemed to like this special phrase a lot and used it on other occasions as well, but I heard it also from other native speakers of English, though it's not to be found in my dictionaries.

Jan F. (Munich, Germany)


Dear Mr F.,

What you described in your letter seems to be a new and very British phenomenon. Well, you could say it has become quite fashionable to use mouthful of easy and commonly used words instead of the correct adjective or noun. But as you know, the English language is constantly developing and evolving. New words come into use all the time. So why not coin a new one which is easier to understand to a whole lot of people then the old one? And what better way is there to combine several words into one but to using hyphens?

These little dash-like signs were already on the verge of extinction. Earlier, when much written text was done by hand or on an old-fashioned typewriter, it would sometimes be necessary to divide a word with a hyphen from one line of text to the next. But these days, with the use of word-processing software, it's hardly ever necessary to do this.

Today the most common occurrence of the hyphen is probably in compound word groups, that is, phrases such as "old-fashioned" typewriter and "word-processing" software. Hyphen, which is a Greek word, means "into one" or "together". It is a useful aspect of punctuation. Linking the preceding words with a hyphen shows that they belong together, and it makes them easier to understand. But - as already indicated - this can also produce new and strange blossoms...

One of the worlds foremost experts on the English language and a guide to these new developments in the English language is Professor David Crystal. He did a talk in the BBC learning English programmes just about this subject: using hyphenated terms like a single word. Using a typical example, he explained:

"Hole-in-the-wall is one of those phrases where you get a lot of words hyphenated if you write it down "Hole-in-the-wall" being used as a single word, as a noun: I'm going to "the hole-in-the-wall" you might say or I'm getting some money out of "the hole-in-the-wall".

Meant by this is an automatic cash dispenser (or ATM Automated Teller Machine) or as Americans would say: a cash-machine, you might have assumed by now. Some of those are installed in the outside wall of a bank or another money-giving organization. It's composed of four words connected by hyphens: hole-in-the-wall.

As Prof. Crystal commented, the term used to be British colloquial and wasn't used anywhere else. Since then, it spread a little and due to an early television advertisement the term "hole-in-the-wall" is common use in Australia now. It is not used in the States to describe an ATM. But in American English it is used to describe a small, modest, and out-of-the-way place, like a diner or a rundown cafe. So an American would say: "My apartment is just a hole-in-the-wall, but my rent is so low I can't complain." or "Instead of going to a fancy restaurant, let's visit some family-owned hole-in-the-wall."

So, coinages like "hole-in-the-wall", "out-of-the-way place" or "dash-like signs", family-owned are always written with hyphens. And the general rule is: compound adjectives that come before a noun are hyphenated (for example, "a coffee-coloured tie", "hard-working" designers creating "ready-to-wear" collections or "off-the-peg lines".), but compound adjectives that come after a noun are not hyphenated ("My tie was coffee coloured". The designers were "working hard").

Hyphens are also used to link some prefixes to word-stems, for example "non" and "anti" are usually linked with a hyphen: non-violent; non-negotiable; non-profit; anti-drugs; anti-bacterial. Or as President Woodrow Wilson put it: "The hyphen is the most un-American thing in the world."

But let us return once again to the earlier-mentioned very British habit to coin new adjectives by hyphenating common expressions, which is of course exactly how the English language changes. People make new words for their own situations or means. And, as you seemed to have guessed already, you can use this language style especially if you are not a native speaker and running out of words. You simply reinvent the words yourself and will sound very eloquent to native speakers.

Maybe a little more? Very similar to the "easy-going-lucky" example you gave we hear people for instance say: He is a very "get-up-and-go" kind of person. You probably know what the sentence "get up and go" means. A get-up-and-go person describes a person that has a lot of energy and enthusiasm, so that he or she cannot stay or wait, they have to do something, they have to get up and realize their ideas as soon as possible.

Another example is "a come-hither look". "To come hither" means "to come here". So it describes the look you can give someone, wishing or demanding the person to come over to you, to see you, usually because you are attracted to him or her.

Easy enough you can try this language style as a sort of game. You take a common expression like: "Who do you think you are!" and make an adjective out of it: He gave me a "who-do-you-think-you-are" sort of look. You can make it even a lot longer if you want and say "he gave me this "who-do-you-think-you-are-and-why-are-you-looking-at-me" sort of look. Well, there is no limit to the length of a hyphenated phrasal adjective but don't go on for too long or you'll run out of breath.

This particularly fascinating form of linguistic design was, by the way, already used by British humorists around the turn of the century, such as the much-read P.G. Wodehouse, whose stories are full of examples like this:

"Lord Emsworth belonged to the people-like-to-be-left-alone-to-amuse-themselves-when-they-come-to-a-place school of hosts."
(P.G. Wodehouse, Something Fresh, 1915)

To sum up: These adjectives are used creatively either to describe a standard noun or adjective in a very particular way or describe a new type, kind or sort of thing in a very non-standard-and-entertaining kind of way.

So as I don't want to end this letter in a "lots-of-love-best-wishes-and-stay-in-touch" sort of way I'm just hoping that I could give you the information on the subject of hyphens, that will make you feel up-to-date on the matter now!

Miranda Gobbledygook

18. Dezember 2018

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